With its myriad public gardens and 40,000-plus vacant lots, many of which have been transformed into community farms, Philadelphia is already a hub for community gardening. Philly also has a shortage of supermarkets in low income neighborhoods, which has made the city an incubator for novel ideas on getting healthy food into people’s hands, cheap or even free. Now, a group of Philadelphia agriculturists are proposing a new type of garden that could address the latter by taking advantage of the former: a food forest on public land, modeled after a similar project in Seattle.
A food forest is a permaculture, or self-sufficient, gardening technique that mimics a woodland ecosystem, and they’re popping up in cities all over the United States. Rather than neat rows of annual crops that need to be dug up and replanted each spring, a food forest has layers of mostly perennial edible and medicinal plants. There may be a canopy of fruit trees, below that shrubs like blueberries, then herbs like rosemary, ground-cover crops like clover, as well as vining plants and root vegetables like potatoes. They tend to promote native plants and provide education about sustainable agriculture, beneficial insects, and local foraging.
And unlike at many community gardens, a food forest has an open door policy. “Anyone can come at any time of day and take whatever they want,” says Michael Muehlbauer, the agricultural engineer and orchardist behind the Fair Amount Food Forest proposal. Whatever doesn’t get eaten by the community is harvested and donated.
It’s a model that Muehlbauer saw in action as a volunteer at the Beacon Hill Food Forest in Seattle, where he lived before moving to Philadelphia three years ago. Though he says people are always concerned about over-harvesting when they hear about the food forest concept, in practice he just didn’t see it happen.
“We have found at that food forest that people really respect that, and you almost have to convince people that it’s ok to take something,” he says. “And then if it does get ransacked by somebody, that’s a success. The food is there to be taken, and hopefully that person really needed all of that, and that just shows that we should be planting more.”
Muehlbauer was inspired to start organizing the Fair Amount Food Forest when he moved to Philadelphia and saw the energy around urban farming here. In Seattle, the Beacon Hill Food Forest had been a community gathering place, entirely run by volunteers contributing whatever they could — be it an hour a week, or 15. That means the model can be especially friendly to low-income families, who may not have the time or money to regularly maintain their own community garden plot, which can involve paying membership dues in addition to buying seeds and tools. Muehlbauer thought a similar thing could work here, with some tweaks.
“Philly is Philly, and Philly is going to do things a little differently. So we’re being really sensitive to the feedback we get and that aspects are driven by this community’s desires,” he says.
In that, he’s trying to take inspiration from permaculture itself: “You’re really creating an ecosystem of plants that work together and benefit each other in their arrangement,” he says of the food forest model. Ideally, the same could be said for a neighborhood: Some of the locations being considered for the Fair Amount Food Forest are in East Fairmount Park, adjacent to the gentrifying neighborhoods of Brewerytown and Strawberry Mansion.
“This could be a place that gives a neighborhood pride and a place to gather and talk about these issues,” says Muehlbauer. “It’s really creating a different model for the civic commons. Humanity used to have more of these spaces, for collectively growing food for each other and sharing it, and this is just trying to bring that back a little bit.”
Right now, the project is still in the proposal phase. Muehlbauer is in talks with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation about potential locations, including the possibility of expanding an existing orchard at Woodford Mansion in East Fairmount Park. Sixteen organizations have already given their support, including the Philadelphia Orchard Project and the Experimental Farm Network.
The next step is to get community buy-in. Fair Amount has hosted one neighborhood meeting with the East Fairmount Park community, and Muehlbauer is in ongoing conversations with neighborhood groups to make sure whatever shape the food forest takes, it’s geared toward current residents, not just the potential, future residents gentrification could bring.
This year, with a $5,000 grant from the Patricia Kind Family Foundation, he’ll conduct more targeted community outreach, asking neighbors how the food forest should look and what it should grow. At the first community meeting, people expressed interest in standard food forest crops like apples, peaches, and plums. They also asked for vegetables, which aren’t always part of food forests because they tend to require annual plantings and more tilling, but fruit trees take years to grow, while veggies are ready for harvest in a season. Muehlbauer says in Seattle, having a veggie patch helped people get on board and see the benefits sooner rather than later, so Fair Amount would probably have a veggie patch too.
“The whole idea is for it to be collectively designed by the people it would benefit,” says Muehlbauer.
This article is part of The Power of Parks, a series exploring how parks and recreation facilities and services can help cities achieve their goals in wellness, conservation and social equity. The Power of Parks is supported by a grant from the National Recreation and Park Association.
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.